Diocese makes final push to encourage families to apply for ESAs

As the May 7 deadline nears for families in Davidson and Shelby counties to apply for the state of Tennessee’s new Education Savings Account program, the Diocese of Nashville’s Catholic schools are making a final push to recruit families. 

Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Hammel appears in a new ad that is currently running on the Diocese of Nashville and Catholic Schools Office Facebook pages. It will also run on WZTV-Fox 17 for a short time. In it, Hammel invites families to apply and learn more at www.dioceseofnashville.com/esa

Her team is also targeting neighborhoods around schools in Nashville and nearby counties with a postcard campaign “to make welcome the families who wish to use Education Savings Accounts to attend our schools.”

Earlier in the year, the Schools Office hosted informational sessions and meetings at Sagrado Corazon Church and St. Joseph School to help families learn more about the program. 

Families in Davidson and Shelby counties who meet income and eligibility requirements can apply through May 7 at  https://online.factsmgt.com/ga/aid/inst/4MK7M to receive about $7,100 in state funds per student to send their children to private schools, starting in the 2020-2021 school year.

Education Savings Accounts, a program passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2019, allows students in kindergarten through 12th grade who are zoned to attend Metro Nashville or Shelby County schools to use state funds to attend participating private schools. Students must be currently attending a public school or entering kindergarten to apply for the scholarship; students currently attending private school are not eligible.

Families must live in Davidson or Shelby counties, but they can use the funds in their Education Savings Account to attend schools in other counties. All the diocesan schools in Davidson, Sumner, Rutherford and Williamson counties are expected to participate in the program, according to Hammel.

ESAs are “an opportunity to share a Catholic education with more families,” Hammel said. The program “will definitely be a boost” to enrollment for the diocese’s schools. 

The ESA program could fill a total of 90 seats in the diocese’s schools, Hammel said. 

According to data from the Tennessee Department of Education’s application portal, 216 applications have ben fully processed and approved for Davidson County, and slightly fewer for Shelby county. Kindergarten and fifth grades have the highest number of applications so far. 

A total of 5,000 ESA student spaces are allotted for the two counties combined for the first year of the program. 

“I think the current conditions with COVID-19 have definitely impacted” the number of applications that have been submitted and approved, Hammel said. “Families are burdened right now, working from home, trying to find childcare, and this has taken a bit of a backseat.”

The entire Education Savings Account program is still being challenged in court, and Chancellor Anne C. Martin heard arguments Wednesday, April 29, on nine motions, including one that asks for a temporary injunction to keep the program from launching before the new school year.

Martin is expected to rule on several key motions in early May. Her two recent orders noted that the state, which has been accepting applications for the program since March 27, has agreed “not to notify any person that he or she has been approved to receive an Education Savings Account” before May 13.